Sunday, 27 May 2018

Cannon, season one (1971)

Cannon was a pretty successful private eye series which began its run on CBS in 1971. I have only the very haziest recollections of seeing a few episodes many years ago.

So far I’ve only had the chance to watch the first few season one episodes. I may return to this series at a later date.

Cannon’s biggest asset (in more ways than one) was of course its star, William Conrad. Conrad was always an enjoyable actor to watch and the role of Frank Cannon was a perfect fit.

The two-part pilot episode, perhaps surprisingly, tells us very little about Frank Cannon. We know he’s an ex-cop. In fact he had been a Detective-Lieutenant. He’s now a PI and we get the impression he’s been quite successful. He certainly seems to live a comfortable lifestyle. We assume he’s a somewhat upmarket PI.

We find out that he’s a tough guy, but he doesn’t go looking for fights (not fist fights anyway). He’s prepared to play it meek and mild if that seems the wisest course of action. He’s clearly stubborn and honest, and he has plenty of perseverance. In later episodes he becomes more of a conventional tough guy.

The pilot takes him a long way away from his usual stomping grounds (LA). An old army buddy lives in a small town interstate, or at least he did live there until he was murdered. His wife is the prime suspect and she asks for Cannon’s help. Cannon is the sort of guy who will always take on this type of case even if there’s no money in it. He wants to find his old buddy’s killer, and he seems to have a taste for rescuing damsels in distress. He immediately decides, based on zero evidence, that the wife must be innocent.

The town of Galliton used to be a happy place but it’s not like that any more. It’s been taken over by racketeering and the city government and the police have been pretty thoroughly corrupted. And Frank soon discovers that even though he’s only just arrived he’s now the most unpopular guy in town.

It’s a very convoluted plot and its twists and turns can be a little bit challenging to follow but on the whole it’s still a pretty good story.

The first actual season one episode is The Salinas Jackpot. It has cowboys and clowns, and it has psycho killers. It also has Cannon doing a MacGyver. When he finds himself without a gun he simply makes one! It’s very entertaining.

Death Chain is the next episode. It features an excellent performance by William Windom as a banker who reluctantly (but quite courageously) engages Cannon’s services to get him out of a jam. It’s a nicely twisted plot involving blackmail, robbery and an ingenious plan to launder stolen money. A very good episode.

Call Unicorn is a straight by-the-numbers private eye tale with Canon going undercover to investigate a truck hijacking racket. Everything in this story plays out exactly as you know it’s going to right from the start. Very disappointing.

Country Blues is a whole lot better. Country music star Woody Long is killed in a plane crash. There was a large insurance policy on his life and the insurance company engages Frank Cannon to investigate the accident. Cannon is pretty sure it was no accident but proving it will be a challenge. Everybody in his home town either thought Woody was a terrific guy or they don’t want to talk to nosy private detectives. There are people who stood to benefit from Long’s death but Cannon just can’t make any theory add up. The plot has some neat twists and turns, certainly enough to keep the viewer guessing.

There are also some wonderfully colourful characters and they have a bit of depth to them. They have complicated motivations. An extremely good episode.

Scream of Silence concerns a kidnapping gone wrong and a young boy unable to speak due to shock. There’s nothing wildly original here but it’s enjoyable viewing.

Fool's Gold takes Cannon to the small town of Julian. He’s working a case for an insurance company, on the track of $900,000 in stolen money. The people of Julian are none too friendly and it’s painfully obvious they’re hiding something. Julian is a dying town but the townsfolk are convinced that’s all going to change real soon. They have big plans to revive the town. Expensive plans. Now where would the money be coming from to finance such grandiose schemes? This is a decent episode.

Girl in the Electric Coffin involves a rock group, an aristocratic cosmetics tycoon, a missing girl and a dead PI. Since the dead PI was a friend Frank Cannon has a personal interest in this case. Another reasonably solid episode.

Cannon’s friends always seem to be getting themselves into trouble. In Dead Pigeon it’s a cop who has been framed for murder. The cop had been getting close to breaking a case involving na crooked lawyer, maybe too close. Cannon has to work with the cop’s less than sympathetic colleagues and he’s up against an exceptionally ruthless bad guy. A good episode even if the ideas are hardly what you’d call startlingly original.

Death Is a Double-Cross takes place partly on a train, which is promising, but sadly it fails to take full advantage of the setting. It’s still an OK story. Canon is hired to facilitate a reconciliation between a rich tycoon and his daughter. Cases don’t much much simpler than this one but the last guy assigned to the job got killed so maybe it isn’t so simple after all.

In The Nowhere Man Canon is hired to find a bookkeeper who has made off with the payroll of a chemical plant which manufactures fertilisers, only it wasn’t the payroll that the employee stole but something much nastier. That plant manufactures manufactures other things besides fertilisers, things like nerve gas.

Private detectives are often hired to find missing persons. In Flight Plan Cannon is hired not to find someone, but to lose someone.The problem is that if you lose someone too successfully what happens if you suddenly need to find them again? This is one of the more interesting episodes.

Devil's Playground is a bit contrived. Ex-cop Jerry Warton (played by a young Martin Sheen) is convinced that an armed robber killed eight months earlier is still very much alive. He wants Cannon to help him find the guy. Cannon has his doubts and he’s also worried that Jerry is so obsessed that his judgment has become warped. Nonetheless he takes the case, which leads to a climax involving motorcycles, machine-guns and multiple explosions! It has its silly moments but it’s entertaining.

Treasure of San Ignacio has Cannon trying to recover religious relics stolen from a church in Mexico. A fairly routine episode. In Blood on the Vine somebody is trying to kill a boutique wine-maker and it’s a complicated family affair, but to my way of thinking the story just didn’t ring true.

To Kill a Guinea Pig is more interesting. Why are hoodlums taking an interest in a female medical researcher? She’s conducting clinical trials on prisoner volunteers and it seems that one of the volunteers is of great interest to those hoodlums.

The Island Caper is quite a fun story. Once a year a very large amount of money gets transferred from an island bank to the mainland. The transfer is done by aircraft, the aircraft being an amphibian as there’s no airstrip on the island. The bank is feeling just a little nervous this time so they’ve hired Cannon to beef up their security. And Cannon has run into an old friend on the island, an ex-con who used to specialise in exactly these sorts of complex heists. Cannon is sure this guy has gone straight but he sure does seem nervous. This is an episode in which Cannon’s methods are more than usually idiosyncratic.

It’s no surprise that William Conrad is terrific in this series. What is surprising is that he doesn’t play Cannon as a mere tough guy. He really plays up Cannon’s sensitive side. This is a tough guy who is a real softie underneath. I know that sounds rather ominous (sensitive heroes can be remarkably annoying) but it works. Of course if you’re William Conrad you can be sensitive without damaging your tough guy status. He’s also genuinely quite amusing at times.

Cannon might be tough but he’s also very successful and very wealthy. He’s a PI who
is quite comfortable moving in the higher social circles (as well as the lower ones more usually associated with the profession). Conrad carries this off quite convincingly. Cannon is definitely not down-at-heel - he’s rich and he enjoys being rich.

My initial impression of Cannon from these episodes (I’ve now seen the first eighteen of the twenty-four season one episodes) is that it’s a decent enough series of its type. Around this time (late 60s and early to mid 70s) there were several private eye series that can be considered as genuinely ground-breaking, series like Man in a Suitcase and Public Eye (arguably the best private eye series ever made) in Britain and The Rockford Files in the US. Even the first season of Mannix can be regarded as making at least a minor effort to push the boundaries of the genre. Cannon doesn’t do any of these things. It’s content to be a straightforward and really very conventional PI series. On the other hand it’s very competently done and the best episodes (The Salinas Jackpot, Death Chain, Country Blues, No Pockets in a Shroud) are very good.

Conforming to the conventions of the genre isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What matters is that Cannon manages to be pretty consistently entertaining. Recommended.

I don’t think this series is as good as its rough contemporaries Mannix or The Rockford Files but it’s worth a look for private eye fans.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Public Eye (1972-73 season)

The sixth season of Public Eye was broadcast in Britain in 1972 and 1973. Down-at-heel private enquiry agent Frank Marker (Alfred Burke) is still based in Windsor. Business is not exactly booming but he is keeping his head above water, although sometimes only just. He hasn’t established what you would call a wide circle of friends but Marker is a very self-contained sort of guy and that doesn’t bother him. He has at least established a fairly cordial relationship with the local police in the person of Detective Inspector Percy Firbank (Ray Smith) although a friendship between a private detective and a policeman is always a little tricky.

The basic formula of this series did not change very much during its ten-year run. This is a private eye series without any glamour at all. Frank’s cases are mostly pretty routine. He does not usually find himself mixed up in anything as spectacular as murder. He’s more likely to be doing divorce work or trying to find people who don’t want to be found. There are no car chases or shoot-outs. These are character-driven stories. It’s gritty, realistic and often very cynical but with a touch of humour that prevents it from being too bleak.

Frank Marker is a bit on the seedy side and he has long since lost his illusions. His job can be fascinating but it can also be tedious and frustrating and on occasions unpleasant. Sometimes a private enquiry agent has to do things that he isn’t terribly proud of. There are moral dilemmas to be faced but Frank approaches his job philosophically. If people employ a private detective that’s their choice and if his investigation uncovers something that the client would have preferred to have kept dark that’s the risk the client takes. Frank is not a social worker.

It’s the kind of series that could have been terribly dull and earnest but it never is. Consistently strong writing and Alfred Burke’s wonderful performance as Marker makes this one of the most engrossing private eye series ever made.

The season opener is The Bankrupt. Marker’s friend Tom Lewis (Gareth Evans) wants him to get back a large sum of money he lent to Melville Hayden-Peters (Ray Barrett). Peters has declared himself bankrupt but he’s still driving around in a Rolls-Royce and living in the grand manner. Hayden-Peters has obviously been very clever, but has he been clever enough? And it seems that everyone in this story thinks of themselves as being very clever, but perhaps none of them is clever enough?

Frank Marker might not think of himself as a terribly clever man but he’s been around and he’s no fool and he’s gradually fitting all the pieces together. They don’t make a very pretty picture. This is classic Public Eye - cynical and downbeat but with plenty of irony and some nicely biting humour. A superb way to kick off the season.

Girl in Blue is a missing persons case. A successful businessman sees a girl he recognises in a blue movie. The girl is his daughter whom he hasn’t seen for five years. He hires Marker to find her. Marker does try to warn him that sometimes people just don’t want to be found and that the daughter might not be the least bit interested in a reconciliation.

This story is a kind of time capsule - a journey back to the days of incredibly tame “blue” movies viewed in smoky backrooms on 8mm film projectors.

The danger with a series that takes a cynical downbeat view of life (and television doesn’t get much more downbeat than Public Eye) is that it can be overdone, and wallowing in pessimism and cynicism isn’t always healthy and it isn’t always good entertainment. Girl in Blue is one of those Public Eye episodes that does come across as bleakness for the sake of bleakness.

Many a Slip demonstrates one of the disadvantages of being a private enquiry agent. You have to follow the evidence you find, even if you have a feeling you might not like where it leads to. And Marker’s friend Detective Inspector Firbank finds that being a policeman involves the same disadvantage. And it all started with a woman wanting to buy a deep freeze and needing a credit reference. A neat little episode.

Baby-sitting cats is hardly the sort of thing a private enquiry agent usually does but when you can’t pay your phone bill you have to take any job that’s going. In Mrs. Podmore's Cat the cat belongs to a wealthy widow with a notorious fondness for younger men. Looking after Bertie (the cat) is challenge enough but Marker has to deal with a puzzling robbery as well, and a very smooth con man. This is one of the very rare Public Eye episodes with a lighter mood.

The Man Who Said Sorry is an interesting experiment. It’s all dialogue and it’s emotionally overwrought and very very stagey. A man who had employed Frank on a divorce case has decided he wants someone to blame for the mess that his life has become, and he decides that Frank is the man he’s going to blame. Frank however is not the kind of man with whom to play such psychological games. An interesting experiment as I said, but it’s heavy going and it gets a bit tedious.

Horse and Carriage is another oddity. This was a Christmas episode and it was obviously felt that a lighter mood was needed. Harry Longstaff hires Marker to check up on his wife who he suspects of having an affair. In fact Harry is always suspecting his wife of having an affair, and he’s always wring. He’s already hired Frank to check up on her on seven previous occasions. At the same time Longstaff’s wife has become suspicious of his frequent absences from home and she’s got a friend, a bumbling ex-cop, to check up on Harry.

Of course, despite appearances, both husband and wife are entirely innocent but somehow circumstances contrive to make them appear guilty. It’s a sort of bedroom farce but without any actual hanky-panky. Both Frank and the bumbling ex-cop become increasingly confused and exasperated, innocent bystanders get caught up in the craziness and it seems that it will all end in disaster. But it’s Christmas and somehow they all get through it without too much damage. Surprisingly enough it works quite well and it is genuinely amusing.

A Family Affair centres on a will. An elderly gentleman has left a third of his estate to his housekeeper and his two grasping middle-aged sons are outraged. They are determined to challenge the will and Marker is hired by their solicitor to dig up whatever information he can find on the housekeeper. He finds a lot of information and it’s not at all what his clients were hoping for. This episode is Public Eye at its best - not too bleak and cynical, taking a realistic but not entirely unsympathetic view of human foibles and having at least a dash of humour.

The Golden Boy draws Frank into an upper-class family drama. Young Vyvyan Reveldale, who is absolutely super at everything, has suddenly disappeared from Oxford. His ageing and flamboyant former tutor, whose interest in the lad may well extend beyond mere academic interests, wants Marker to find him. The Reveldale family seems curiously uninterested in Vyvyan’s whereabouts although Sir John Reveldale certainly doesn’t want Reggie Aston (the tutor) to know where he is. It’s a potentially tricky situation, and it makes for a particularly good episode.

The Windsor Royal is a rose. Not just any rose though. It’s not quite the ultimate rose but it’s close to it. Two of these incredibly valuable rose bushes have been stolen, and the nursery-owner who developed the Windsor Royal hires Marker to find the culprit. Marker finds that he’s stumbled into a rather involved family drama and that family drama may be the key to the missing roses. A very entertaining episode.

It's a Woman's Privilege is another excellent episode. Frank’s landlady from his Brighton days suddenly shows up. He and Helen Mortimer had become quite close friends. Helen has a problem - she is worried that her 23-year-old son may have become involved in some kind of shady business deal. Frank will find out that accepting a friend as a client can be very awkward, and he also discovers that turning to a policeman for help on a case can be tricky, especially when the policeman in question, Detective Inspector Percy Firbank, is a friend as well. Mixing personal and professional relationships is probably something that a private enquiry agent would be wise to avoid. This is an episode in which Frank gets to do some real heavy-duty sleuthing as he becomes more and more convinced that there’s something shonky going on.

One of the many ways in which Public Eye broke the accepted rules of series television was in not always providing resolutions to a story. Sometimes Marker’s cases just fizzle out, just as in real life many of a private detective’s cases don’t actually lead anywhere. In Home and Away a woman hires Marker to find out if her husband is having an affair. What the client actually wants is however not always clear. It’s obvious that this woman is not happy with her marriage but the reasons for her unhappiness are obscure. And Marker is caught in the middle, not really knowing what he’s supposed to be doing. It’s a very low-key story, nothing really happens, and yet it’s quite a fascinating little character study.

Egg and Cress Sandwiches presents Frank with an odd case. It started with poison pen letters received by a retired general who is also a churchwarden. The letters allege sexual misbehaviour on the part of the vicar. The vicar is a new man and seems to be more interested in socialism than religion and he’s not exactly universally popular in his parish. Frank finds out that the vicar has another secret. A solid enough episode, plus it has Brian Blessed as guest star (as the vicar).

An enquiry agent doesn’t always see people at their best. In fact he often gets to see people at the very worst. Frank thinks he’s pretty hardened but even he’s a little shaken by what he uncovers in The Trouble with Jenny. It all starts with a girl in a hotel trying to gas herself.

Network’s DVD release is what you expect from them. The transfers are very good and the extras are very sparse.

A great series. Highly recommended. I’ve also reviewed the DVD release of the surviving episodes from the first three seasons - Public Eye: The ABC Years.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

three Star Trek episodes from 1968

Three season three Star Trek episodes from 1968.

I have to be a bit careful in talking about The Enterprise Incident. Giving any plot details could give away spoilers so I’m going to be incredibly vague about the actual story.

We get first Kirk and then Spock behaving very uncharacteristically, and then we get an explanation of their behaviour that makes sense and is more than just a convenient plot device. It’s the heart of the episode, which is all about deception. It also offers some insight into their actual characters. They behave very dishonourably but they believe (rightly or wrongly) that they are justified in doing so. It does however tend to make nonsense of the whole idea of the Vulcans as a remarkably honest and honourable race. It is a little worrying that they seem quite unconcerned about their conduct. I’d have thought that these were both men who would dislike having to behave dishonourably, even if they felt that duty compelled them to do so.

In fact the episode makes nonsense of the whole idea of the Federation as the peace-loving virtuous high-minded entity that we’ve been sold on throughout the series. In this story the Federation is clearly in the wrong. Unfortunately D.C. Fontana’s script makes no attempt to explore any of these potentially fascinating aspects in any depth. The assumption seems to be that the Federation are the good guys so therefore whatever they do must be right. This is a missed opportunity but in 1968 the network was probably not going to allow the show to explore those aspects even had the writer wished to do so. And I suspect that Gene Roddenberry would not have been pleased at the idea of the Federation being exposed as hypocrites.

We also get an intriguing view of the Romulans. The Romulan commander (played by Joanne Linville) is also prepared to practise a certain amount of deception although she still comes across as being less immoral than the Federation.

There’s also an angle to this story that you could never get away with today - the Romulan commander is undone by her own female vanity. In fact we see a female commander who, unlike most such characters in later science fiction movies and TV, does not behave at all like a man. It would be enough to get a writer burned at the stake today.

All in all it’s quite an interesting episode even if it pulls its punches a bit.

There’s also a reasonable amount of action and excitement.

Had this story been done in one of the later Star Trek series I suspect it would have been handled much less successfully.

The Paradise Syndrome by contrast is a bit of a disaster even though there are a couple of good ideas. The Enterprise has to deflect an asteroid that is about to destroy an Earth-like planet. Before that can happen Captain Kirk manages to get himself lost on the planet surface and in the process he loses his memory.

It is a very Earth-like planet indeed. Inhabited by people who are not just humanoid but very obviously human. In fact they’re American Indians. They’re not just similar to American Indians, they’re identical to American Indians. Of course in Star Trek we get lots of Earth-like planets populated  by humanoids who really seem pretty human. What’s interesting here is that The Paradise Syndrome tries to explain that curious fact and does so in a reasonably convincing manner, and a manner that offers potential for future story ideas. That’s the most satisfactory thing about this episode.

We also get Captain Kirk falling in love. OK, it’s not the first time that has happened, but this time things go much much further than in any previous episodes. Unfortunately the love story plays out rather predictably.

The supporting characters are totally two-dimensional and behave in utterly predictable ways.

The pacing is leaden and although the story should have plenty of suspense and excitement with its race-against-time element if all falls a bit flat.

The episode’s best assets are the performances of Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley. Spock and McCoy spar, as usual, but the sparring has some emotional depth to it. Spock has to make some very tough decisions, he’s under real pressure and feeling the pressure, and McCoy is making a real effort to see Spock’s point of view and understand the reasons for those decisions.

The Paradise Syndrome is an exasperating and not very well-executed mixture of good and bad.

And the Children Shall Lead has the reputation of being one of the worst, if not the worst, Star Trek episodes ever. And how well it deserves its reputation.

The Enterprise arrives at the planet Triacus to find that all the members of the scientific team there have killed themselves. I have to say that after watching this episode you’ll probably want to kill yourself as well. Actually it’s only the adults who committed suicide. Their children are still alive and seem extremely happy. In fact they seem pretty pleased that their parents are dead.

Dr McCoy thinks the children are suffering from traumatic shock but it soon becomes evident that they’re possessed by some kind of evil. They try to take over the Enterprise. They do this by paralysing the crew members with their worst secret fears. OK, that’s a reasonably OK idea but it’s very clumsily executed. The fears conjured up are just silly and totally unconvincing. Kirk and Spock have the strength of character to resist and they realise that if they can’t free the children of the evil they’ll have to kill them.

The children are being controlled by an evil alien named Gorgan. He’s perhaps the least scary villain in television history.

The special effects are truly awful. They’re poorly conceived and badly executed.

The acting is dismal. The children, except for the blonde girl, aren’t convincingly evil. The regular cast members don’t distinguish themselves. That is perhaps more the fault of Edward J. Lakso's script than of the actors. Kirk, Spock and Dr McCoy are all put in situations with the potential for interesting explorations of their characters but the script fails to exploit the opportunities and the actors are left floundering.

The script has a couple of almost interesting ideas that aren’t developed. The pacing is leaden and the ending is feeble.

This is about as bad as television science fiction could ever get.

So three episodes, one very good and extremely interesting, one not so good and one terrible. Which sadly tells the story of the third season of Star Trek.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Sweeney! (1977), the movie

It was a fairly common practice in the 70s for successful British TV series to spawn a feature film spin-off. In the case of The Sweeney there were two spin-off movies. Sweeney! was the first and was released in 1977.

Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) are hardcase coppers with Scotland Yard’s elite Flying Squad. This time they’re involved in an unusual case involving the potential for international intrigue. This is the sort of thing that would normally be dealt with by Special Branch but the script gets around this difficulty by having Regan get involved in an indirect way, doing a favour for a particularly useful informant named Ronnie Brent.

Ronnie’s girlfriend has just died. A verdict of suicide was brought in at the inquest but Ronnie is adamant that Janice would never have killed herself. He asks Regan to look into the case in an informal sort of way.

The case proves to involve corruption at the highest levels, with high-class call girls used as bait, and organised by people to whom mass murder is just routine stuff, just another day at the office.

Ranald Graham’s screenplay is in fact a little overblown. One gets the impression that this movie is trying to be a conspiracy theory political thriller of the sort that enjoyed some popularity in the 70s. It’s not the kind of story one associates with The Sweeney and Im not sure it was a terribly good idea. It’s the kind of story that needs a very big-budget approach. It also has a slightly transatlantic flavour to it which is odd since one of the reasons for The Sweeney’s success was its thoroughly British feel.

The advantage of the feature film format over television is usually obvious - bigger budgets, the opportunity to do more ambitious action scenes, better image quality. In other words a cinematic look. This doesn’t really apply to The Sweeney though. The series was shot on a fairly generous budget, on 35mm film and entirely on location, and with fairly ambitious action scenes, so it already looked cinematic. The movie looks pretty much like the TV series.

This may be the reason for the political thriller plot - if the film was going to end up looking like an extended episode of the TV series then the grandiose plot would provide the necessary cinematic feel.

It might be unfair to say that The Sweeney TV series was an exercise in style over substance. It was a very well-written series. At the same time it has to be said that style was a very important ingredient. That style sharply distinguished it from previous British TV cop shows. It was not just a matter of visual style. It was the whole atmosphere, the mix of seediness, mild sleaze and violence, the approach taken by the two lead actors. Unfortunately a lot of that is lost in the movie. That’s partly due to the plot which casts Jack Regan as the maverick cop who gets suspended and then has to operate as a lone wolf, which means we miss out on a lot of the everyday interaction between Regan and other officers which was such an essential part of the series.

Sweeney! also takes advantage of the opportunity offered in a movie to increase the level of violence and the level of bad language and to add some entirely gratuitous nudity. This actually turns out not to be an advantage after all - it makes the movie seem a bit too much like just another generic action thriller.

The Region 4 DVD release offers both spin-off movies on two discs. The anamorphic transfer for Sweeney! is pretty good. The lack of extras is a problem - viewers unfamiliar with the TV series would doubtless have appreciated a bit of background on the characters and on what was one of the most iconic TV series of all time.

It’s not that this is a bad movie. It’s just that fans of the television series are likely to be disappointed that it bears very little resemblance thematically or stylistically to the series, which is a problem since one assumes that the target audience for the movie would have been, primarily, fans of the TV series. Sweeney! is a 70s paranoia thriller. If you like that sort of thing it’s OK but pretty routine and the plot is rather silly at times.

Sweeney! is definitely a bit of a misfire.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season 3 (1966-67) - part 2

I posted on the subject of the first half of season three of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in January. This current post is basically just an episode guide for the second half of the season.

The Brand of the Beast is the kind of episode that, for better or worse, gained season three its reputation for fairly silly monster stories. The Seaview is racing to save a group of scientists on a sinking ship. The reactor overheats and Admiral Nelson has to risk radiation poisoning to fix it. Now of course the great fear that haunts everyone who works with nuclear energy is that if they get a heavy dose of radiation they’ll turn into a werewolf. In fact of course this can only happen if you’ve already been exposed to the werewolf virus. On the other hand on a vessel the size of Seaview it’s pretty much a certainty that there will be at least one crew member who carries the werewolf virus, and of course in this case that person is Admiral Nelson.

So we get the admiral running amok and smashing all kinds of vital equipment and almost sinking the Seaview. Which is fun even if it’s kind of silly. What makes this episode more interesting than you might think is that both Captain Crane and Chief Sharkey are put in positions where their loyalties conflict with their duties and they have to make agonising decisions. And the actors really do try their best to carry it off. The ending is ludicrous but it’s ludicrous in a fun way.

The Creature is typical season three stuff. A somewhat unhinged scientist has created an artificial life form and (perhaps unwisely) released it into the sea. Now this seaweed monster has grown huge and it’s decidedly unfriendly. Admiral Nelson wants to destroy it but that’s not easy as the monster starts taking over the minds of the Seaview’s crew. This is all pretty much stuff that has been done before. A very weak episode.

In Death from the Past the Seaview finds a strange structure on the sea floor. Inside this structure Captain Crane and his men find - Nazis! Live Nazis, who think World War 2 is still raging. The structure is a weapons lab, full of secret weapons. The Nazis, who don’t seem to be aware that 35 years have passed (and who haven’t aged since 1944), want to take over the Seaview for the Führer. Not a very impressive episode.

The Heat Monster is not entirely a bad idea. A foolish Norwegian scientist guides an alien entity to Earth. The alien is a heat creature and it’s obviously not friendly. The script is fairly pedestrian which is a pity since the special effects are reasonably good and the Arctic setting is terrific (and is used to good effect).

The Fossil Men is another monster story. The monsters are rock men, as in men made of rocks. Naturally they have evil designs on the Seaview and its crew. This is one of a number of season three episodes in which Richard Basehart and David Hedison give the impression of playing things, part of the time at least, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Amusingly the episode starts with Nelson reading sailors’ tales from the 17th century about  horrific events after ships are destroyed in a maelstrom. The Seaview is about to encounter exactly the same fate. The rock men look pretty good, even if they are guys in rubber suits. This is a thoroughly enjoyable episode and even its weaknesses have the effect of adding to the fun.

In The Mermaid a secret mission has to be delayed because Captain Crane is off chasing a mermaid. This is the kind of story that all too often brings a science fiction series to shipwreck. It’s extremely difficult to get the tone just right. It has to be a bit whimsical but kept within limits, there has to be a touch of humour but it can’t be played for broad comedy and it has to have a slight suggestion of a dream-like atmosphere but without going too far. They almost pull it off. The first half of the episode works perfectly. Then it disappointingly turns into another guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster episode. On the plus side Diane Webber makes an adorable mermaid, John Lamb’s underwater photography (including footage from his odd but interesting feature film The Mermaids of Tiburon) is gorgeous and David Hedison’s performance is excellent. This should have been a terrific if  offbeat episode. Despite its flaws there’s still a lot to like about it. I don’t think writer William Welch can be blamed for the way the episode loses its way - by this time the network had made it pretty clear that they wanted monsters and that’s all they wanted so he probably didn’t have much choice about throwing in the monster stuff.

The Mummy starts intriguingly enough. The Seaview sneaks into the port of New York, Nelson and Crane use the Flying Sub to steal ashore incognito and they return with a 3,000-year-old mummy in a case. Even before the opening credits we have reason to believe that the mummy may not be quite dead, and something odd is happening to Captain Crane.

Strange things start to happen. Things like sabotage, and crewmen getting attacked. It’s as if someone or something is determined to prevent the mission from being accomplished. Mind you, the mission itself sounds rather unlikely anyway.

The mummy itself is pretty dismal but the story is fun if you don’t try to make sense of it. In fact you can’t make sense of it - most of the questions you want answered don’t get answered. And at the end Admiral Nelson tells Crane that some things are best left unexplained, which pretty much sums up this episode. For all its faults I enjoyed this one.

Seaview is on a mission to exercise control over the launch of an interstellar space probe when the submarine is engulfed by what appears to be a black void and one by one the crew gets taken over by an alien entity in Shadowman. It’s an idea that had already been used once too often. This episode is drearily unimaginative and is made worse by its all-too-evident cheapness. It’s not that the special effects are poor. They’re non-existent and it’s an episode that desperately needed special effects.

Is No Escape from Death the worst-ever episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? It certainly has to be a contender for that title. The Seaview sinks (which is no big deal since it sinks in nearly every episode of the third season) but this time it sinks really badly. This episode is mostly a succession of clips from earlier episodes, many of them in black-and-white just to make it more insultingly obvious what has been done. It was a way to keep the budget at absolute rock bottom, and by this stage that was obviously all that mattered.

The best thing that can be said about Doomsday Island is that it doesn’t look as cheap as the episodes that preceded it. In fact there are things about it that look quite impressive. Unfortunately the aliens themselves are very poor guys-in-rubber-suits monsters. This is your standard space aliens taking over the world story, with the first step naturally being to take over Seaview. One or two good ideas in this story, and an enormous amount of silliness.

After a succession of disappointing episodes things get back on track with The Wax Men. The Seaview takes on a strange cargo - crates filled with wax statues reputedly from the Lost Continent of Atlantis. Only that’s not what’s in the crates. They actually contain robotic wax dummies of every member of the Seaview’s crew, plus one small but very malevolent clown. The clown is actually a diabolical criminal mastermind and the robotic wax dummies take over from the crew and allow him to gain control of the submarine. The clown has made one miscalculation - the real Captain Crane is still at large and he wants his submarine back.

This one has a genuinely creepy atmosphere. The wax robot crew members are wonderfully but subtly sinister. There’s also terrific paranoia - Crane is entirely alone and has no way to fight back. He’s just waiting until he gets hunted down. The effects are very good. David Hedison does well as Crane starts to crack under the pressure. Michael Dunn (best remembered perhaps as the evil megalomaniac Dr Loveless in The Wild Wild West) makes the clown convincingly deranged and menacing. And there’s a nicely surreal feel to proceedings. This is enhanced by the wise decision not to over-explain things (and not offering an explanation adds to the terror and mystery). One of the best episodes of the season.

Deadly Cloud is another alien invasion story that utilises too many tired ideas that the series had used too many times before. The aliens have the ability to take control of members of the crew and turn them into obedient robotic zombies. Even with the threat of the world ending in 20 minutes’ time this story can’t work up any real suspense or excitement.

Destroy Seaview! again relies on plot devices that were becoming all too familiar but at least there are no monsters. We also find out how to deal with a nuclear reactor that is about to go critical - you just shoot it, with lasers. An OK episode.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about season three is that Richard Basehart and David Hedison continue to put real effort into their performances. With the increasing silliness of the stories there must have been a temptation either to lose interest or start hamming things up but by and large they resist those temptations, although Basehart does occasionally succumb. Basehart took himself quite seriously as an actor and wasn’t especially happy making the series, and was also drinking rather heavily. David Hedison seems to have taken a more realistic and more philosophical view - the series was fun to do and it paid well.

The real problem with season three is not that it had become locked into a Monster of the Week formula, but the fact that the budget was woefully inadequate for following such a formula successfully. Some of the monster stories (such as The Mummy) might have worked quite well with a bit more money spent on them. I also get the impression that the writers were starting to accept that no-one really cared about the series any more and as a result they were not exactly motivated to produce dazzling scripts.

Season three does have its moments but it’s heartbreaking to see the sad decline of what had been the best American sci-fi series of the 60s.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Time Tunnel (1966-67), part one

The Time Tunnel was less successful than Irwin Allen’s other 1960s TV sci-fi series, running for a single season on the American ABC network from 1966 to 1967.

I wrote about The Time Tunnel a few years back but I’ve now had the opportunity to watch a lot more episodes and my views on this series have changed somewhat so I think it’s appropriate to take another look at it, and in a bit more depth.

The premise is a good one - a top-secret U.S. government time-travel project. Although the technology is very advanced in theory in practice it doesn’t work so well and our two unfortunate time-travellers are hopelessly lost in time, shuffled from one historical era to another but with no way of returning to the present. So it’s a bit like Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space but with the heroes lost in time. It is however notably lacking in the high camp excesses of Lost in Space. In fact as time-travel series go it takes its subject more seriously than you might expect. There is for example a much greater awareness of time paradoxes and the inherent limitations of time travel that you don’t find in Doctor Who.

One of the things for which The Time Tunnel is sometimes criticised is the very extensive use of footage from various 20th Century-Fox historical movies. I don’t really see this as too much of a problem. It’s done quite skilfully and in any case a series in which every episode takes place in a different historical period and always at a time when major historical events are unfolding would have been astronomically expensive to make without the use of existing footage.

Of course this technique means that the series is limited to dealing with historical events for which 20th Century-Fox had suitable colour footage from their movies but since the studio had made a lot of movies by 1966 this was not a major constraint.

All American science fiction television programs of the 50s, 60s and 70s had budgetary problems. Science fiction television is expensive to make and there’s really no way to avoid spending a lot of money if you want decent results. This tended to make the networks very nervous, and tended to make them fairly hostile to science fiction. Network execs figured that if cop shows and westerns could be made dirt cheap then why risk big money on science fiction shows? Most American TV sci-fi series in this era had limited runs, not necessarily because of poor ratings but simply because the bean-counters were unwilling to continue spending money on series they considered to be risky to begin with.

The usual pattern was for the first one or two seasons to be fairly visually impressive and then the producers would find themselves having to deal with sharply reduced budgets in later seasons. The most successful of all Irwin Allen’s series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, suffered rather grievously in this respect in its third and fourth seasons. The use of existing footage helped to keep The Time Tunnel’s budget within reasonable limits but it was still inevitably a lot more costly to make than a cop show. It’s therefore not entirely surprising that the series was cancelled after a single season despite very good ratings.

Doug and Tony, the two heroes of the series, always seem to arrive at a particular time and place in which something incredibly historic is about to happen. It’s a bit unrealistic but after all the aim is to provide entertainment so it’s forgivable.

Science fiction writers tend to agonise over the dangers of time paradoxes and to take two different approaches to the question. One approach stress that time travellers would have to be very careful not to change history as this could have disastrous consequences in the present. The alternative point of view is that even if you tried to change history the Universe would not allow it to happen and history would stubbornly follow its allotted course. The Time Tunnel seems mostly to adopt the latter approach. Doug and Tony do on many occasions try to change history but they seem doomed always to fail. In some episodes they seem oblivious to the problem while in others they seem to be very aware indeed of the impossibility of changing history.

There is one curious unexplained aspect of this series. What exactly is the purpose of the Time Tunnel? Obviously it’s time travel, but for what purpose? It’s established very early on that any attempt to change the course of history is doomed to fail. So why is the U.S. government spending billions on the project? We do get a tantalising hint in the episode Secret Weapon that the CIA might have an interest in the project.

It’s also interesting to compare this series with another Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which began its run two years earlier in 1964. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a celebration of American scientific and technological prowess, with the Seaview being a shining achievement. The technology in The Time Tunnel on the other hand is ambitious but it’s a fiasco. The tunnel is supposed to be able to send people to a specified time period but it doesn’t work properly and can send them anywhere. It’s supposed to be able to bring them back again but it can’t. There’s supposed to be a mechanism that will allow the controllers to contact the time travellers but it doesn’t work. The controllers are supposed to be able to pinpoint the time travellers’ exact position in time and space but it only works intermittently. This is a seriously unsuccessful piece of technology!

Rendezvous with Yesterday was the pilot episode. The DVD release of the series includes the unaired extended version of this episode. Irwin Allen himself directed it and shares the writing credit as well.

An ultra-secret US government project is getting very close to unlocking the secrets of time itself and making time travel possible, but when the pesky Senator Leroy Clark (played by Gary Merrill)  turns up to find out exactly how the many billions of dollars poured into the vast project have been spent they have to admit that they haven’t done any actual time travel yet. They’re sent mice back in time, or at least they think they have but they can’t be sure because they’ve never been able to get the mice back to the present. Senators being annoying creatures Clark wants to close the whole project down unless they can demonstrate some real results right now. As in today.

Horrified by the thought of seeing the project shut down the young and headstrong Dr Tony Newman (James Darren) volunteers to be the guinea pig. He is told that such a thing is out of the question. It is much too dangerous. He goes into the time tunnel anyway.

He ends up in 1912. That’s not so bad, especially when he meets a charming and friendly young Englishwoman, Althea Hall (Susan Hampshire). And he’s on a passenger liner and it’s a sunny day and the sea is calm. This is not bad at all. He doesn’t start to worry until he sees the name of the ship. It’s the Titanic.

The project is supposed to have a way of keeping track of time travellers but despite ten years of work and billions of dollars the whole time tunnel thing still has a lot of bugs in it. They do locate Tony but his buddy and close associate on the project Dr Doug Philips (Robert Colbert) realises that the only way to rescue him is to go into the time tunnel itself to bring him back.

So we now have two scientists hopelessly lost in time.

In One Way to the Moon Doug and Tony are transported ten years into the future, onto a spaceship bound for Mars. The difficulty is that with two extra passengers the spaceship is now dangerously overloaded. There’s plenty of action and excitement and there’s the neat twist of an important character in 1968 watching his future self in 1978.

End of the World is a clever idea. Doug and Tony are in the middle of a mine disaster in 1910 but no-one wants to help rescue the trapped miners because there’s no point - Halley’s Comet is about to hit the Earth and everyone is doomed anyway. Doug and Tony have to find a way to convince the townspeople the world isn’t going to end, which means they have to convince the great Professor Ainsley that his prediction is wrong and that the comet is not going to hit.

Crack of Doom takes our intrepid time travellers to the year 1883, to a little island named Krakatoa where a volcano is about to erupt. In fact the whole island will blow up, the explosion making the most powerful H-bomb seem like a toy. The explosion was heard 3,000 miles away. And the Time Tunnel has dropped Doug and Tony onto the island the day before the eruption. Apart from trying to save themselves they also hope to save a curmudgeonly vulcanologist and his daughter.

In Massacre the two time travellers find themselves at the Little Big Horn just in time to see Custer lead his men to disaster. This episode gets a bit heavy handed at times.

Devil's Island takes Doug and Tony to the infamous French penal colony in French Guiana. Naturally they arrive right at the time that the prison’s most famous prisoner, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, arrives. Doug and Tony are mistaken for prisoners and have to endure various horrors at the hands of the sadistic French commandant and the brutal French sergeant of the guards. There is an escape plan afoot but could it be a ploy by the evil French government to kill Dreyfus? The writers of this episode seem to have a few issues with the French! Not a great episode.

In Reign of Terror those dastardly French are up to evilness again! This time it’s the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette is about to have her head chopped off and Doug and Tony are drawn into a plan to save her (which of course they know is impossible). In any case they have enough trouble trying to keep their own heads on their shoulders. Quite a good episode.

Secret Weapon is a spy thriller episode set in eastern Europe in 1956 and Doug and Tony find out that the time tunnel is not as unique as they’d thought. This is the first episode that really plays around with the time travel concept in a creative way rather than just as an excuse for adventures in other historical period. It’s also the first episode that gives us a hint as the actual purpose of the Time Tunnel. It’s intended as a weapon. It’s a weapon that both sides in the Cold War are trying to develop. This is the best and most interesting episode so far.

The Death Trap has quite an amusing setup. There’s a plot to assassinate Lincoln, in 1861, and the would-be assassins are Abolitionists!

As far as The Alamo is concerned the title pretty much explains it. The trick for Doug and Tony is to get out of the Alamo alive. A reasonably good episode.

Night of the Long Knives takes Doug and Tony to India, to the North West Frontier, in 1886. Naturally they run into Kipling, and they get mixed up in a planned rebellion. Lots of stock footage in this episode (from King of the Khyber Rifles) but there’s also plenty of action and excitement even if the plot is totally unoriginal. I happen to be fascinated by this area of history so I loved this story.

It’s rather surprising that we get to episode fifteen, Invasion, before we get our first conformed Nazi sighting. Nazis were everywhere in 1960s action adventure TV series. In this story Doug and Tony are in Cherbourg, two days before D-Day, and the Gestapo is convinced they are spies. Doug gets brainwashed into believing he’s a Nazi. This is an OK episode.

That takes us up to the halfway point in the series. There’ll be another post at a later date covering the rest of the episodes.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

It’s a bit of a challenge trying to find anything new to say about Thunderbirds. It’s one of the truly iconic 60s TV shows, has maintained a loyal cult following for half a century and has been endlessly written about. All I can do is offer a few personal impressions, plus I’m going to talk about a few episodes that I’ve watched recently that have some interesting aspects to them.

One of the secrets to the success of the Gerry Anderson series of the 60s was that both Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had major input into the formats. Gerry knew all the stuff that boys were going to like (gadgets and action) and Sylvia knew what girls would like (a beautiful glamorous female secret agent). They had all bases covered.

And with Thunderbirds they really went all out to make sure they had all those bases thoroughly covered. It truly was a remarkably clever idea. The exploits of a rescue organisation had obvious potential for proving action and suspense. But this was to be an ultra-secret rescue organisation, so immediately you have the potential for some spy series-type intrigue. Add the aforementioned lady secret agent and you have even more excitement plus some glamour. To make this ingenious formula work they needed scripts that would provide the right mix of science fiction, spy thriller and crime thriller elements (with occasional dashes of humour and romance) and that’s what the writers came up with.

There was also Gerry Anderson’s determination to make each new series look more impressive than the preceding one. Thunderbirds is definitely a major step forward from Stingray. It’s visually more ambitious and it has a much more lavish and at the same time more realistic look. The action sequences are bigger and better. The miniatures are better. The puppets have been improved.

Compared to Stingray Thunderbirds definitely has more of an epic big-budget feel, it’s more cinematic. The hour-long format also of course lends itself to a more expansive and complex approach to plotting.

Stingray could be very exciting but there were many episodes that had a very whimsical feel. Which is fine, since it was essentially a kids’ show. Thunderbirds still has moments of whimsicality but overall it has a more sophisticated more grown-up tone. The whimsicality is kept strictly within limits.

While it was the spectacular rescues that were the series’ main selling point the spy/crime/ international intrigue angles actually dominate quite a few of the stories. In Brink of Disaster Lady Penelope, while out driving in her Rolls-Royce (unusually she is driving herself and is alone) is menaced by a couple of hoods. They take a few shots at her car with a submachine gun. At this point she decides the two men are a problem that needs to be disposed. So she kills them, ruthlessly and efficiently and without fuss. There’s no moral problem here. She is clearly acting in self-defence. It is however quite clear that Lady Penelope accepts that her job as a secret agent will sometimes require her to kill people, and it is clear that she has absolutely no problem with this. It’s a slightly surprising attitude to find in a kids’ show. What’s even more noteworthy is that in this case the violence is fairly realistic and not cartoonish.

There’s a definite attempt to avoid giving Jeff Tracy and his sons too much of a bleeding heart vibe. Obviously they are dedicated to saving lives and to doing good but they’re hard-headed and realistic about it. It’s also interesting that a rescue organisation employs a secret agent (Lady Penelope) and that it’s taken for granted that her duties will from time to time involve killing people. Jeff Tracy clearly understands how the real world works and that an overly sentimental or naïve approach won’t get you very far. It’s a remarkably clear-sighted and realistic view to come across in a children’s television program.

Brink of Disaster is an interesting episode not just for its insights into Lady Penelope’s ruthlessness. A major challenge for the writers was that Thunderbirds has a large cast of regular characters. There are ten major characters and a couple of other recurring characters. They all need to be given something useful to do. So in this episode there are two interconnected plot strands, one of which gives Jeff Tracy, Brains and Tin-Tin the rare opportunity to be personally involved in a rescue while the other puts Lady Penelope and Parker at centre stage.

Attack of the Alligators! is another interesting one. While Thunderbirds is science fiction the science fictional elements are generally quite restrained. Most of the technology consists of what would have seemed like fairly conservative extrapolations on the technology of the mid-60s. Space stations, hypersonic aircraft like Thunderbird 1, high-speed monorails, supersonic airliners, advanced cargo ships requiring only a skeleton crew, all these things would have seemed very plausible indeed. Attack of the Alligators! is a rare example of a Thunderbirds episode that involves rather fanciful science fiction elements (alligators grown to several times their normal size by a new miracle drug). In fact this story has the feel of a 1950s monster movie.

We also make a surprising discovery in this episode. International Rescue’s hoverbikes are missile-armed! And Thunderbird 4 carries missiles as well.

Martian Invasion involves not an alien invasion but a movie about an alien invasion. An accident on the set leaves two actors trapped in a cave that is rapidly filling with water. But that’s only part of the story, the real story being that it is all part of a plan by the nefarious super-spy The Hood to steal International Rescue’s secrets. And International Rescue does not take kindly to any threats to its security. It turns out that Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 2 are also very well-armed and Scott and Virgil are quite willing to resort to extreme measures to keep the organisation’s secrets. The combination of a race against time to rescue the trapped actors with some remarkably well-filmed action scenes (the chase scene involving Thunderbird 1 is particularly impressive) makes this a very entertaining episode.

The Duchess Assignment is a crime thriller episode with a rescue thrown in at the end. This one could easily have been an episode of The Saint, with Lady Penelope trying to extricate an old friend from the clutches of crooked gamblers and trying to foil art thieves.

The Cham-Cham is a spy thriller, with Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin going undercover to investigate a possible link between a pop group and the mysterious loss of several military transport aircraft. This episode demonstrates the growing confidence of Anderson’s team of puppeteers - we see puppets playing musical instruments, skiing and dancing and doing so fairly convincingly. They even do stunts! So far as puppeteering is concerned this may be the most ambitious episode yet. And with a bit of a Bond movie feel to it (not surprising in 1966) it’s also great fun.

Operation Crash-Dive is a more conventional rescue-oriented episode. The loss of one of the highly advanced Fireflash supersonic jetliners was bad enough but now a second Fireflash has crashed, in almost the same location. International Rescue are on the scene but there seems that there is little they can do until Brains comes to a startling conclusion. The Fireflash may have crashed into the sea and it’s possible that the flight crew could be still alive, trapped deep beneath the sea.

International Rescue do a bit more than just carry out a rescue though. For the next Fireflash test flight they take over the whole process of investigating the cause of the air disasters. There's plenty of excitement to come in this story.

In Edge of Impact that villainous super-spy The Hood is sabotaging the test flights of the advanced new fighter the Red Arrow. There’s also the matter of two men trapped atop a television transmitting tower, and that’s due to The Hood as well. The rescue method is certainly different and it involves a bizarre gadget, so all in all a good episode.

Cry Wolf is an episode that threatens to get a bit too warm-hearted. A couple of boys in the Australian Outback are playing at being International Rescue but their radio message is treated as genuine by the real International Rescue and Scott sets off in Thunderbird 1 to rescue them. When he discovers it was all a game Scott decides to take them back to the secret base on Tracy Island, hoping that this will persuade them not to send out any more fake distress calls. But what happens when soon afterwards the boys really need rescuing?

Dennis Spooner throws in some spy thriller elements, with the boys’ father being involved in an ultra-secret government satellite tracking project and masterspy The Hood determined to steal the project’s secrets. After a slow start things pick up and there’s a double race against time as the climax. It gets a bit whimsical at times and it’s not a classic but it’s an OK episode.

Thunderbirds really is great entertainment. There’s the occasional dud episode but the good episodes (and there are plenty of good ones) are significantly better than anything Anderson had done before. Highly recommended.